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John MacKinnon frequently mentions Alexander Richmond and Kirkman Finlay in his Political History of Glasgow, describing their involvement in the emergence of Radical movements post-1815. I supplemented this information with my own independent secondary research, utilising in particular a JSTOR article titled Alexander Richmond and the Radical Reform Movements in Glasgow in 1816-17 by W.M Roach.

MacKinnon’s account sees Finlay and Richmond meet in 1812 as the representatives of the manufacturing and weaving bodies. But their more significant contact was after the Napoleonic Wars, when Finlay hired Richmond as a spy to infiltrate the various political reform groups that had arisen in Scotland to push for change largely as a result of the “deteriorating economic situation” . Reports were issued to Parliament which purported to contain “secret information relative to the disordered state of the country” , claiming that such Radical groups did not merely desire “universal suffrage and annual parliaments” but that some were instead plotting to “[totally overthrow] all existing establishments” . In light of this information, Parliament moved to both suspend Habeus Corpus until the beginning of July 1817 and pass the Seditious Meetings Act in order to utterly suppress their activities . As Roach states, much of the existing scholarship on these events is based on the views of Peter MacKenzie, a Glaswegian journalist whose writings in the 1830s “tried to show that the secret conspiracy and the threat to government were created by Alexander Richmond” and that he specifically acted as an agent provocateur. MacKenzie’s work has since been endorsed by other scholars, with one local historian claiming that he invented the conspiracy to claim the government reward . Roach argues that there was “much secret activity in the Glasgow area in 1816-17” , that Richmond did not invent the conspiracy nor act as an agent provocateur, and that “much of the information provided was inaccurate whereas that provided by another spy (George Biggar) was of much greater value” .

MacKinnon’s Political History of Glasgow does not seem to correlate with MacKenzie’s view of Richmond, but nor does it serve to refute it. Rather, the only critical claim of his narrative was that “the movement was magnified ten times the actual amount to alarm the timid and make them cling to the government” , something that Roach also agrees on, stating that despite the clear attempts that were being made to expand and to make contact with English reformers, thus embodying a threat to established government, the government seems to have exaggerated the importance of an association that was not well organised and was poorly financed . MacKinnon’s letters to his son James are more hostile towards Richmond but also interestingly critisises MacKenzie for accusing another member of the reformers, McDowall Peat, to be a spy instead of Richmond. Of course, it is entirely possible that MacKinnon merely read one of MacKenzie’s books in which he does charge Peat instead of Richmond and then never followed-up on his subsequent work. MacKenzie’s claims against Richmond began in 1830, so this near-15 year gap between the events and MacKenzie’s accusations against Richmond could have allowed MacKenzie time to reflect on previous work and alter his views accordingly. Alternatively, although Richmond was a spy in 1816, he was not the following year. Hence, this particular book of MacKenzie’s that MacKinnon could have read and then referenced may have, unbeknownst to MacKinnon, referred to the developments of reformist groups in 1817 and would therefore not focus on Richmond. However, this seems less plausible, since the book would have undoubtedly included a timeframe and – had it not concerned events in 1816 but rather 1817 when Richmond was not immersed in Radical movements – then it would have been unlikely to spur MacKinnon to passionately claim that “no one will make me believe that Peat was a spy” and that he was instead “duped by some designing knave like Richmond” .

MacKinnon, damning but limited in his claims about Richmond, was ultimately right about his undercover status. MacKenzie, on the other hand, grossly exaggerated the role that Richmond played as a spy, particularly regarding his supposed role as an agent provocateur and the subsequent influence he had on establishing relations with other reformist groups. One leader of a group infiltrated by Richmond, John McLachlan, “published a long affidavit blaming Richmond for trying to persuade reformers to take measures that they would otherwise not have considered” , including encouraging those in the group to “try to establish contact with groups in England” . Moreover, in August 1817 an individual covertly named ‘A lover of truth and an abhorrer of spies' wrote “there can be produced hundreds of witnesses to prove that he was in the constant practice of boasting of his intimacy with gentlemen of great respectability and wealth in Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere” . But this status placed on Richmond by MacKenzie is refuted by Roach – “it was later claimed that Richmond provided the reformers with [a] secret oath and encouraged them to send delegates throughout Scotland and to England, [but] from the precognitions we learn that… Richmond was not present when discussion about and preparation of the oath took place” and thus likely merely relayed the oath back to Finlay once it had been performed . Lastly, MacKenzie additionally claimed that Richmond essentially “create[d] the conspiracy as it developed” in order to enable the government to arrest their political opponents and curtail the liberties of the people .

MacKenzie’s aggrandised emphasis on Richmond as a figure of reformist espionage, as well as the endorsement of MacKenzie’s view by subsequent scholars, in turn detracts away from the work of more effective acts of infiltration within Radical circles. This includes the actions of George Biggar, who was “employed as a spy by Sheriff Robert Hamilton of Lanar from about the second week in January 1817” after Richmond ceased to be a spy. In contrast to “Richmond's inaccurate reports in December 1816” , in just two weeks, “Biggar had been admitted to the secret association and he was able to give (from personal experience that Richmond never had) information about the oath of secrecy, the bond of union or obligation to remain loyal to the association, the signs and hand grip by which members recognised one another, and the passwords for entry to meetings” . He also “provided a copy of the oath which was sent to Sidmouth on 31 January” and “when the secret sign and oath were altered in February, Biggar informed the authorities of the changes” .

The second effect of MacKenzie’s largely baseless accusations was that it completely undermined the validity and credibility of Richmond’s defense in the face of such claims. Richmond “admitted that in 1816 he had been a spy but denied that he had done anything to encourage the plotters” , thus attempting to shed the title of agent provocateur. But, as Lord Cockburn noted, “even although his narrative 'may not be vitiated by purposed falsehood . . . (and) there is a general foundation of truth in it, the details of no such statement can be relied on when they depend entirely on the authority of the narrator'” . All Richmond had to defend himself was simply that – himself. When Richmond charges against MacKenzie and the booksellers that disseminated his books attacking him were brought to trial in December 1834, Richmond “was refused permission to read out a statement” from Finlay and James Reddie, the Glaswegian clerk who had recruited him as a spy in collaboration with Finlay. Furthermore, the defence was conducted by Serjeant Talfourd “who made much of the fact that Richmond brought the case before an English rather than a Scottish court… Talfourd made it appear that Richmond was so notorious in Scotland that he could not hope to prosecute successfully there” . Ultimately, “Talfourd's skill and Richmond's lack of legal expertise led to the charge of libel being dismissed” . Yet a study of the correspondence between “the lord advocate, Finlay, Sidmouth… and others” that shows that Richmond's narrative, which highlights the true extent of both his influence within the Radical associations he infiltrated and conspiracies he uncovered (including his ability to begin one, as MacKenzie claimed) alongside the limited extent of information he provided, is “much more reliable” that MacKenzie’s elaborate claims. Moreover, although one is compelled to learn from MacKenzie and therefore should view Richmond’s information with trepidation, by holding Richmond in too dubious a regard one risks subconsciously rejecting the useful elements of his work. For instance, he firstly contacted a “set of reformers who were particularly interested in the lack of poor relief” but shortly afterwards engaged in correspondence with a group whose objective was “the complete overthrow of existing arrangements and seizure of the property of the higher classes of society” . As Roach accentuates, Richmond shows clearly this disparity and diversity within the Radical movements of Scotland, but because he has been discarded by MacKenzie as both an agent provocateur and the creator of the conspiracy he (according to MacKenzie) conveniently ‘uncovered’, “insufficient attention has been paid to what he wrote” and “the importance of these early reform movements in the development of political consciousness among the lower classes of society in Scotland has been largely ignored” .